The Devolution of Media

March 30, 2010

Editor’s note: This is John Reinan’s weekly column for MinnPost.com. To see the original, go to http://bit.ly/b8tI1C.

If you’re not acquainted with the work of the Pew Charitable Trusts on the media, you’re missing some of the most useful and thought-provoking research on the subject. Anyone interested in the state of the media would find fascinating material at any one of several Pew sites.

Pew funds several media-themed projects, including the Pew Internet & American Life Project, which examines the impact of the Internet on our society. The trusts also sponsor the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism, which monitors the changing media world.

Pew doesn’t take an advocacy stance on the topics it studies. What it does is conduct thoughtful research that illuminates trends with real data. We all have theories about what’s going on in the changing media world. The beauty of Pew’s work is that they produce solid numbers that allow them– and us– to draw reasoned conclusions about where we’re headed.

To cite just one example, Pew monitored more than a million blogs and websites to determine what subjects elicited the most coverage. The study found that blogs and social media differed greatly in the topics they focused on compared to mainstream legacy media, such as newspapers and TV news.

Yet the blogs and websites relied on legacy media for 80 percent of their links. It’s one of the great ironies of the new media age that, even as legacy media struggle, the new media that are devouring them still derive most of their nourishment from the carcass of the old media. Websites like MinnPost, which produces original reporting, are rare. Only about 14 percent of the sites studied by Pew offer original reporting as opposed to commentary.

And as a media consumer, you should be aware that the media now include countless partisans– business, cultural and political– who have the means to spread their messages in a way that wasn’t possible during the era of print on paper. Once again, Pew has looked into this.

“There are varying degrees of transparency in these efforts about the financing and intentions,” the Project for Excellence in Journalism reports. “Some are quite clear. Others present themselves as purely journalistic and independent when in fact they are funded by political activists, yet only by digging and cross-referencing websites can the agenda and financing be divined.”

Look here for some chilling data on the state of traditional media, with staggering losses in revenue and customers across every media category except cable TV. As the traditional media continue to shrink, more of your media diet will be generated by partisans rather than by the independent media we’ve relied on for the past 100 years.

Those of us whose business it is to deliver messages to you are watching these developments and, in many cases, actively helping to shape them. And I’ll bet many of you are doing the same. Each time you post a comment on a story or offer a link to another site, you’re becoming part of the media.

I hope you deliver more light than heat.